Hours: Sun.-Thu. 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $3-11; sushi a la carte $4-12; sushi combos, $17.50-39
Atmosphere: Casual Asian café
Smoking: None permitted
We can debate whether Pittsburgh is culinarily conservative, but its indisputably geographically inland, a place where for years the category of seafood was represented by a fried-fish sandwich. As such, its a city where most sushi places hedge their bets, offering broader Japanese menus and sometimes even spaghetti or fried chicken in the expectation that their patrons are as likely to ask for teriyaki as for tentacles in the raw.
Then theres Susheli, a sushi restaurant with an unapologetic focus on raw fish, offering only a couple token hot entrees. It is also a kosher establishment whose staff seems to be drawn from its Squirrel Hill neighborhood in the spirit that you dont have to be Asian to either serve or savor that continents cuisine.
Although sushi is as Japanese as well, what is more Japanese than sushi, after all? Susheli offers no pretense of Asian authenticity in its menu, instead providing a creative interpretation of Japans most distinctive edible export. Remarkably, the entire menu revolves around only four fish: tuna, salmon, yellowtail (hamachi) and red snapper. The sushi chef explained that more esoteric fish wasnt certain to sell, so to maximize freshness he simply does his best with these popular selections.
And his best is pretty good. The night we were there, he informed us that the hamachi was freshly cut from the bone, so we hastened to order up hamachi nigiri, the classic lump of sushi rice. The mildly flavored fish was superb, with a lovely velvety texture and a nutty garnish of black sesame seeds.
Mixed fish ceviche was a decidedly non-Japanese take on a raw fish dish, and a tasty alternative to traditional sushi. To prepare it, the chef takes three of his four fish and tosses them in a bouquet of citrus juices lemon, lime and orange and sliced jalapenos and spices. While traditional Mexican ceviche usually relies on a lengthy citric acid bath to cook the fish, sushi-grade seafood requires only a quick toss. The result is chunks of fish rendered opaque on the outside but still raw inside, with each species retaining its fundamental character: meaty tuna, silky salmon and tender-firm hamachi.
For a cooked appetizer, we were intrigued by miso salmon cakes. A sort of fusion of kosher and Japanese cuisines, they did indeed have a moist, cakey texture. Crispy outside, they were savory inside, with a miso tang that mediated between the mild fish and strong fried flavor. Citrus aioli was an excellent complement.
A field greens salad with matchsticks of carrot, red bell pepper and crispy leeks seemed ordinary until we tasted the dressing. The sesame-shallot mixture invoked the peculiarly Asian flavor of a seaweed salad.
Of a dozen maki, or sushi rolls, on the menu, some, such as spicy tuna, were classic selections, while others displayed Sushelis creative tendencies. The Red Baron, with asparagus and red snapper, was drizzled with an orange-colored sauce that failed to deliver on the promise of spiciness. Without any heat to dress up their vegetal character, the asparagus spears in the sushi proved too prominent, and the flavor of the red snapper always mild receded to oblivion.
Somehow the seared sesame-tuna roll suffered a similar fate, despite tunas natural assertiveness. Thin slices of nicely pink and white fish were wrapped around the seaweed, and the rice within surrounded a generous amount of rich avocado. Yet this salutary combination failed to add up to more than the sum of its parts, perhaps because the sushi rice was not sufficiently seasoned.
Finally, rainbow futomaki fat roll succeeded beautifully in balancing a dizzying array of ingredients. Tuna, salmon and yellowtail joined with avocado, scallion and tiny matchsticks of cucumber to offer bites blending meatiness, astringency and silken richness with the pleasure of sweet, fresh fish.
As sushi restaurants go, Susheli is a breed apart. Rather than hewing to traditional Japanese preparations, Susheli takes them as a starting point for a raw-fish repertoire all its own.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars